It has got to be weird to be Game Freak.
Game Freak is a company that started as a “fan zine” (like a primitive Geocities) back in the early days of gaming. That is adorable. Also adorable: Game Freak progressed from super fans to the big leagues in 1989 with the release of a NES game, Mendel Palace (aka Qunity). If you don’t remember Mendel Palace, that’s okay, but know that it’s an action puzzle-ish game that possessed some of the most deceptive North American box art on the NES. After releasing Smart Ball (aka Jelly Boy) for the SNES, Game Freak started to get cozy with Nintendo, and was granted the keys to Nintendo’s newest mascot, Yoshi. Yoshi (the game) was a Dr. Mario-esque puzzle game that pretty much only used the titular dinosaur as an excuse for egg stacking/hatching. However, this wouldn’t be the last time Game Freak worked with a strange, sexless creature that was only capable of saying its name…
After a few other games (including one starring Mario… that never saw American shores), Game Freak finally hit pay dirt: The Gameboy Camera. Wait, no, not that. Pocket Monsters: Red & Green were released in Japan in 1996, and then its international cousins, Pokémon Red & Blue were released in North America shortly thereafter. From that point on, Game Freak released very few games outside the Pokémon umbrella. No, they’re not responsible for every Pokémon game (the trading card games were put together by the remains of the people behind Earthbound, and Pokémon Snap was produced by pure, bottled joy), but every “real” Pokémon game, like Pokémon Yellow, Pokémon Garnet, or Pokémon X/Y, all came from the graduated fans at Game Freak. And, frankly, it makes sense: in a way, the Pokémon games are an advanced/evolved form of Dragon Quest, so it only makes sense that the kind of game that so heavily relies on minutia and balancing some 700 critters would come from minds that have been dedicated to gaming since the days of Erdrick. Ignore all the hype, ignore 900 episodes of a TV show, ignore the fact that there are children born knowing the word “Pikachu”, and you still have a JRPG that is just plain good, and somehow a rolling katamari of monsters and move lists that have persisted for twenty years. That almost seems impossible!
And then there are Game Freak’s other games.
Since 1996, there have not been many outside the Pokémon umbrella. There’s Click Medic, a (Japan only) RPG set in the far flung future of 2016, a time when diseases have to be found and catalogued in a manner not entirely unlike capturing pocket monsters. There’s 2012’s Harmoknight, an interesting rhythm/action game that has the misfortune of being on the same system as Final Fantasy Theatrhythm. And, more recently, there’s Tembo the Badass Elephant, a platforming/action game that is pretty similar to today’s game: the 2005 Gameboy Advance release, Drill Dozer.
Drill Dozer is a quirky, completely adorable game. You play the part of Jill Dozer, daughter of Doug Dozer, and inheritor of the Drill Dozer. But don’t worry! Doug isn’t dead, he’s just been injured by the nefarious Skullker gang, and, since those blasted Skullkers also stole the valuable
Pink Red Diamond that belonged to Jill’s mother, it’s up to Jill and the Red Dozers to beat those Skullkers down. Along the way, you’re likely to obtain a few other gigantic, mystical diamonds of varying powers (Green Diamond can control fish? Uh, sure), and eventually destroy the Dark Diamond to totally defeat Croog, leader of the Skulkers. And did I mention the benevolent Red Dozers are bandits, too? It’s a good excuse to rob a museum.
And the gameplay does some interesting things with the action platformer genre. First, and most obviously, this is a Gameboy Advance game with built in rumble effects, and, like Wario Ware Twisted, it completely justifies the gimmick by viscerally enhancing any drill jobs. It just plain feels good to drill down some wall with the GBA shaking like a jackhammer in your hands. Beyond that, every stage of Drill Dozer follows a familiar rhythm: your drill mech starts out with a mere single gear, but find two new gears in the level du jour, and suddenly you’ll be a lean, mean, drilling machine (moreso). Previously insurmountable obstacles crumble like tissue paper, and whatever gimmick lurks around the stage is usually enhanced by Jill’s new gears. Combine all this with some Treasure-esque giant bosses, and you’ve got the recipe for a great game, left alone a great game for the GBA.
Let’s talk about Pokémon again. I’ve got to fire up Pokémon X again to claim that Volcanion, so… let’s see here… I’ve apparently played Pokémon X for 290 hours. Technically over twelve days. That’s just one Pokémon game, and I’m almost certain I put a similar number of hours into Pokémon Black. Total up all the Game Freak produced Pokémon games, and it’s entirely possible I’ve devoted a cumulative month of my life to playing with Pikachu. Mind you, in many cases I was also doing something else while fiddling with the pocket monsters, but, still, a lot of time fake bike riding.
Drill Dozer, meanwhile, was one and done, and I barely felt any need to finish it when I was playing it the first time. The game isn’t bad! It’s just, somehow, not very compelling. Even though the game is completely designed around the mechanic, maybe the way you have to constantly reacquire your “best” powerups is tiring. Maybe the GUI constantly displaying the “gear up” gauge detracts from the amusing visuals. Maybe it’s simply that the story feels too light and breezy to have any real ramifications or pressure toward “what happens next”. Maybe the levels are too long. Whatever the reason, I enjoy playing Drill Dozer, but I in no way feel compelled to replay the thing or collect all the hidden treasures.
And Drill Dozer is not the only Game Freak game that gave me that feeling. I played Mario & Wario (somehow) for a few stages to see what I was missing, and then quit, feeling quite content to never play it again. HarmoKnight is cool, but I could be playing a rhythm game with music I already like. And Tembo the Badass Elephant I have sitting on my Playstation 4 with two or three levels played, and the rest? Well, I’ll get back to that someday, right?
But Pokémon is amazing, so Game Freak must know how to make an enthralling game. It’s not a mile a minute thrill fest, but it holds my attention for hours, so it must be doing something that the other Game Freak releases are not. I mean, my most played game since Summer has been Pokémon Go, and that even got me to get up and walk around the big scary outside. Game Freak must…
Pokémon Go is a joint Pokémon Company / Niantic release, and only could possibly be related to Game Freak via Pokémon Company employee overlap? So, the gameplay of Pokémon Go, such as it is, is predominantly the domain of Niantic? I’m… I’m just playing the number one app of the year because I like the idea of a Lickitung hanging outside my house?
Geez… uh… Must be weird to be Game Freak right now.
FGC #195 Drill Dozer
- System: Gameboy Advance. This one is just begging for a virtual console re-release on the WiiU, assuming they can get the rumble right.
- Number of players: Jill Dozer is one of a kind.
- What about Dig Dug? Shut-up.
- What’s in a name: Drill Dozer’s original, Japanese title is Screw Breaker Gōshin Drillero. That… that is what I want to name my children. It’s unisex.
- Crossover Appeal: The fact that Tron Bonne and Jill Dozer, both bandits that pilot bipedal mechs that occasionally have drill arms, have never met is criminal. These two need a team-up, like, yesterday.
- Favorite Boss: Sometimes giant scorpion mechs with drill tails are best.
- Did you know? Jill Dozer appears as an assist trophy in Super Smash Bros. Brawl… but not in Super Smash Bros 4. This is disappointing, but likely has something to do with her Game Freak origins. There is a drill item in Smash 4, but it seems to be more based on a Kid Icarus item than a pink mech.
- Would I play again: I did enjoy this game when it came out… just I never thought about it again until ROB chose it. I want to say I’ll play it some more… but I have to get back to that elephant game first, right?
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Back to the Future for the NES! Did… did you get the date right, ROB? No. Didn’t think so. Anyway, please look forward to it!